An ancient injustice

08Nov10

According to a BBC report, the family of John Horwood are claiming the return of his remains so he can be given a decent burial.

The Horwood case is a classic example of the sort of injustice that the poor have always experienced. Even by the savage standards of more brutal times, it stands out as a particularly nasty case.

Briefly, Horwood, who lived in Hanham, had some sort of thing going for a girl named Eliza Balsum. She caused him some offence, real or imagined, and he threw a stone at her. It hit her on the head, and she died of her injury some days later.

Horwood never denied throwing the rock. He is quoted as saying: “Lord, thou knowest that I did not mean then to take away her life but merely to punish her … though I confess that I made up my mind, some time or other, to murder her.”

And that was that. Just 18 years old and plainly not of sound mind, but the confession was good enough to get him the death penalty. Feel free, if you wish, to make as many comparisons as you like with the judicial murders taking place in several US states to this day. Young male with poor education, usually a low IQ, does something dumb, has little or no legal representation, ends up on Death Row.

On April 13 1821, John Horwood was the first person to be hanged at Bristol’s “new gaol” in Cumberland Road. The prison gatehouse had been specially built to hold public hangings on the roof.

Horwood took several minutes to die by slow strangulation. The event was hugely popular, with thousands of people turning out; the authorities were seriously worried that the crush would lead to spectators falling into the river.

Horwood’s family had asked that they be given the body so they could bury it. The request was refused. The bodies of executed felons were reserved for dissection by the medical profession.

Horwood’s body was given to Richard Smith, a surgeon at the Bristol Royal Infirmary who had also treated Balsum. Smith had a particular thing for the bodies of criminals. In 1802 he had dissected the bodies of two women who had been executed for killing their babies.

He dissected the body, cutting off the skin. This he took to a tanner in Bedminster. A bookbinder charged him £1.10s (£1.50) to use some of the resulting leather to bind a book in which Smith kept documents and correspondence relating to the case. The sketched portrait of Horwood is among them.

This was considered excessive and rather sick, even by 19th century standards. A Bristol doctor writing about the case several decades later sought to excuse Smith’s actions by saying he had probably been upset at having to watch poor Eliza Balsum die. This is plainly bollocks. He was a surgeon. Working before the introduction of anaesthetics. Watching some working class girl from Hanham dying isn’t going to bother him.

For many years the book was at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where it must have been quite a conversation-stopper. It’s now at the Bristol Record Office.

Many Haliwell, from Manchester, was researching her family tree and discovered that Horwood is one of her ancestors. She came to Bristol University to see his skeleton; according to the news story, she was upset to see the way it’s just lying there gathering dust in a cupboard, while the book is some sort of civic treasure. She has a point, doesn’t she?

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